Dear Molly Ringwald,
Hi. I am a fellow Generation Bratpack kid and a mother of female children. My elder daughter is fifteen, and terms like “microagression” and “gender fluidity” and “consent” and “implicit bias” and “privilege” are part of her absolute ground-zero basic vocabulary because that is very much a thing where we live.
Her favorite movie of all time? The Breakfast Club.
After reading your article in The New Yorker I asked her if she felt subjugation of women was a significant dynamic in the film. Her answer? A slightly exasperated, “Of course not.”
Granted, she never saw the nude swimming scene Hughes left on the cutting room floor (apparently because his 10th grader female lead asked him to), but we believe you that it existed. Having screened basically all his movies with my daughter, I can confirm that his sense of humor around, say, race doesn’t remotely stick the landing in 2018: The kid alternately cringed and screamed at the TV through The Long Duk Dong Incident and flounced out of the room 20 minutes into Weird Science. So the swift and eye-rolling nature of the answer was interesting. How, you asked, can someone write so sensitively about teen life on the one hand, but also be so willing to objectify, trivialize and sexualize women?
The answer might, unfortunately, be, “Because people do that.” Because Hughes was not writing a prescription but painting a portrait, and because in the specific case of my kid’s favorite movie it’s superficial and inaccurate to chalk that stuff up to trivializing women, even if, quelle horreur, there are underpants involved.
Or, as my daughter suggests: “He does it because they are all stereotypes or archetypes and they represent ideas and social positions. Bender doesn’t harass Claire because John Hughes wants me to believe objectifying females is appropriate. He does it because Claire represents everything that makes him feel bad about himself. Because he knows the system has already written him off and she’s sitting there wearing diamonds and eating sushi.”
“But doesn’t gender probably have a role in how he harasses her,” I asked.
“Not probably, Mom; obviously. He does also harass the boys and he doesn’t do it by sticking his nose up their skirts. But he doesn’t do that to Allison, because Allison isn’t a spoiled princess. It isn’t about gender. What John Hughes was obsessed with was class. It’s always open season on rich pretty kids in his movies.”
Molly, I gotta tell you … I think the kid nailed it. Objectification of women was not the modus operandi of Judd Nelson’s character. Dehumanizing privilege was. And the reason a teen of today gets creeped out by Weird Science and adores The Breakfast Club is precisely because that is the stuff of teen development that never goes away no matter how much diversity and inclusion training they get in school, no matter how much consent education, no matter how impossible to ignore bullying has become in their generation. Deliver whatever apologias you feel are warranted, but for what it’s worth, anyone braying for blood over a 30-year-old movie featuring teenagers behaving like teenagers has missed the point in this case. And no, that’s not a, “Well, boys will be boys” defense, nor am I a Flat Earth conspiracy theorist writing this with a big MAGA cap perched atop my large domed head. As I have been telling my kids from day one, “All of your feelings are valid, but that doesn’t mean all your choices are.” And how most teenagers feel is disaffected, unseen, unlovable and desperate to feel some other way. The magic of that film was that Hughes never betrayed an archetype or the realities of the often vicious social stratification of a teenager’s universe, but he gave those five kids a few minutes off from feeling like no one would ever understand them. It was cathartic at the time and remains so today.
It’s a fact of human development—“boundaries” are not something we are born with. They are learned, often painfully and often more than once in a lifetime. A human fetus lives in a literally zero-boundaries environment; it forges a cord to a placenta and starts vacuuming nutrients out of its mother’s bloodstream. They share everything. Everything. At birth, a human being’s eyes can see a distance of roughly 18 inches, which is the approximate distance to its mother’s face while it is nursing. For several years after the child is born, it is developmentally incapable of perceiving itself as a separate entity from its primary caregiver (regardless of whether that is a biological mother). From there, in fits and starts, we process the notion that we are actually individuals. This is what is going down when your toddler suddenly becomes a pint-sized despot from hell. It’s called individuation. The same process is at work when adolescents start to realize they are not only distinct from their caregiver but also their peer group and it is the process responsible for the Draconian and often class-based (and always class-based in Hughes films) social constructs of adolescence, as we each navigate our tribal and personal identities. It is also responsible for surliness, disregard for previously accepted authority figures, and a sudden need to wear Doc Martens in July or dye one’s hair ultraviolet. It’s called “socialization.”
Sadly, it is developmentally normative for power politics in teens to team up with sexual insecurities, resulting in John Bender committing atrocities against your knickers while hiding under a desk from a stupid and abusive authority figure. I am not saying this makes sexually trivializing, objectifying, bullying or belittling high school girls acceptable—ask me about the time a cop pulled me over and cited me for “cuteness in public” when I was 16!—I’m only saying that running an experiment on sexually inappropriate behavior is something plenty of teenagers try out at some point. To know where the boundaries are, sometimes what we do is keep going as far as we can until something stops us. Boom. Boundary. The fact that shocking numbers of men apparently never leave high school in this particular regard is unfortunate and needs to be dealt with, but that’s an entirely separable from the question of whether one has a duty to vilify the choice to introduce it into the environment in The Breakfast Club. In the case of Bender, it’s in keeping with the character, and I see that character not as an objectifier of women but an abused kid who has internalized the idea that he’s going to get clocked no matter what he does, so he acts out in every way he can think of.
And he doesn’t “get the girl” by force, or nagging, or putting rohypnol in her bento box; he’s locked in a closet and she makes the willing and conscious choice to go join him in there. The message is not “sexually humiliating teen girls will get you laid.” It’s “once you break down the stupid social constructs and see each other for who you truly are, you realize you’re actually not bound by those constraints at all.” Claire consents. In fact, initiates. And gives him one of her diamond earrings as a token of a bond they will probably ignore come Monday, even though all those characters have had their worldviews turned upside down during that detention.
I did not know John Hughes, so I can only speak to what’s on the celluloid. I did not know that you, a teenaged actress, successfully got him, a dude, an established figure in Hollywood and your director, to cut a scene from The Breakfast Club that you felt contained gratuitous objectification of a woman, but based on filmmakers I have had the dubious pleasure of knowing or working with, I gotta say that’d put Hughes in downtown Saintsville by comparison to many.
Do we need to achieve a much better understanding of what consent is and how to talk about it without meltdowns? Yes. Is abuse and harassment of women ridiculously pandemic in this society, and wouldn’t it be better for everyone if that changed? Absolutely. Were some of John Hughes’ jokes lazy turkeys that turned on stereotyping? Of course. Should anyone be apologizing for The Breakfast Club?
This Brat Pack kid is staring down her 30th high school reunion and has a long history of being a lightning rod for abusive, controlling men: My #MeToo creds are, I assure you, unassailable. Hughes screwed the pooch on race on multiple occasions, but no one owes anyone an apology for representation of teen sexuality-speculation in The Breakfast Club. None of that stuff was particularly about gender: his signature preoccupation was always class. And that movie is by far its classiest, and most classic, expression.
Right down to the underpants.
Amy Glynn writes for herself, for publishers and for Paste, not necessarily in that order.